Skip to main content

Bats Sing, Mice Giggle – Karen Shanor & Jagmeet Kanwal ****

This has to be one of the more eye-catching titles for a popular science book – it grabs the attention and makes you smile – then the content makes you think. The idea is to explore the inner life of animals, and make us realize that they are much richer than we realize.
Things start off strongly with a first chapter on the way animals respond to and generate electric fields. We’re all familiar with the zapping ability of electric eels, but there’s much more to this area. Not just milder electric field generation for location purposes, but also passive electric field detection that enables, for instance, sharks to home in on their prey. Then we move onto the use of magnetic fields, whether in bird migration, cows aligned North/South (rather frustratingly referred to but not really explored) or birds that appear to be able to see magnetism (with the right eye only). By the time you’ve added in creatures that can sense and interact by vibration you begin to get a strong picture that the ‘five senses’ are just a tiny part of the sensing spectrum.
We go on to look at different aspects of animal adaptability, behaviour, humour, communication and much more. Unless you are absolutely on top of this subject there are bound to be aspects that are truly amazing. Whether it’s the way salamanders can rebuild brain function after there brain has been removed, “ground up” and returned (this could have done with a bit more explanation) or the way even small brained creatures like birds have some degree of self recognition, or can count, the book is bursting with examples to make the reader go ‘Wow!’ It’s one of those reads where it’s difficult to resist turning to someone nearby and telling them about something you’ve read. I couldn’t resist doing a blog post based on something it mentions.
There are a few problems with the book, not huge, but mildly irritating. There’s a tendency to suddenly say ‘Karen did this…’ and the reader thinks ‘Karen who?’ It’s a mistake to assume that the reader can remember the authors’ names, and over-familiar to introduce them into the flow in such a careless fashion. Worse, many of the chapters can seem to be a collection of ‘this animal does this, and that animal does that’ statements – more a well written list than any form of developing picture.
On the science side, the authors are noticeably weak when the science strays into physics and should have got more help. For instance, when referring to quantum entanglement (for some reason in the vibration section), they say that if you have a pair of entangled particles at A and B, ‘a code can be sent out from A to B without any information occurring between A and B, therefore preventing interception.’ Leaving aside the strange usage of ‘information occurring’ they seem to think that you can use an entangled link to send a message. You can’t. It can be used to encrypt data, but not in the way they seem to think it can. They should have read The God Effect.
If you overlook the physics flaws (which are minor and don’t get in the way of the main message), this is mostly a readable, enjoyable introduction to an impressive subject. Despite years of natural history programming on the TV, a good book like this can still really open our eyes to wonders of nature in a fresh way. And that’s not a bad thing.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…